Thursday, July 28, 2011

Christmas in July: Guest Post with author Barbara Briggs Ward

Please join me today in welcoming the author of The Reindeer Keeper, Barbara Briggs Ward.  She is sharing an original short story and an intro about her book.  Stay tuned for the intro of The Reindeer Keeper after the story.  Enjoy!


Sleigh Bells Ring
Barbara Briggs Ward

Chester hadn’t heard the sleigh bells since he’d sold a good part of his team to some young guy who’d moved into the old McCormick place further down the road. Not that he’d included the bells in the sale. He’d never do such a thing. They’d been in the family for generations. He just put them away. He did the same with the sled that had carried so many kids through the backfields; stored it in the barn. When Chester’s wife died, that part of his life went with her. Actually anything that meant anything to this farmer who no longer farmed had been buried with Anna. He kept a few chickens; couple of horses and of course the cat that had slept at the end of their bed for as long as Chester could remember. Anna had insisted.

“I don’t want you to be alone,” Anna would repeat every time the conversation came back around to the fact that she was dying. They’d never had children. Anna lost a baby in her third trimester and was told she’d never be able to have children after that.

So it was Chester and the long-haired cat Anna had named Barley left to ramble about the old place set up on a ridge overlooking acres that spread to the horizon. It was because they had no children that those sleigh rides with kids from a nearby orphanage meant so much not only to the kids but to Anna and Chester as well. After the sleigh ride, they’d have the boys and girls in for hot chocolate and sugar cookies. The highlight was a visit from Santa Claus with his bag full of presents. Not once had any of the children connected the bearded driver of the wooden sleigh to Santa himself. They never wondered where Chester had gone when Santa came. That’s the magic of Christmas.

“It has to be that red, velvet suit, honey,” Anna would explain. “They see that and forget about everything-and everyone-else. That’s all they need to be convinced.”

That was proven true again on the night of what locals would come to call one of the great snowstorms-some eight months or so after Anna had passed away.

Snow kept tumbling down as Chester sat at the table, finishing soup he’d made earlier before going into the village for a few things. He checked the time. Because of the weather, it’d turned dark even earlier than usual this evening. Chester still couldn’t get used to the time change-so many changes. Anna always had supper on the table by 5:30. Now Chester ate when he felt like it-if he felt like it at all.

It wasn’t until he opened the refrigerator for more milk that he realized he never picked any up. The grocery had been too busy for Chester. Between the storm and the holidays, all the stores were crowded with shoppers. The countdown was on. He’d heard some woman tell her kids they’d better behave. Santa would soon be here.
You’d never know it looking around the kitchen. There were no signs of the holiday anywhere in the house. There was no towering tree or smell of nutmeg or cinnamon; no gifts or cards. Christmas didn’t exist anymore in the old house with its built-in china cabinet in the very room where the oak pedestal table would be pulled open to fit whoever made it back-and that’s just how Chester wanted it.

“Come for Christmas dinner, Chester. We’d love to have you. No one should be alone on Christmas.”
“I appreciate the thought, Tom. But there will be no Christmas this year.”

“What do younger brothers know anyway,” Chester thought-putting the dishes in the sink. “Maybe I’ll give him a call but not this week."

It wasn’t until the lights flickered on and off more than once a few hours later that Chester got up from his chair in the front parlor. He’d tried to read the paper but he kept dozing. He hardly ever watched television.
“You get your best sleep in that old chair,” Anna would tease. “I don’t bother to try to wake you anymore when I go to bed. I know you’ll show up some time before dawn.”

That was one thing that hadn’t changed although more often than not he never made it upstairs. Morning would find him asleep in that chair with Barley by his side. But he was wide awake now. The howling wind made sure of that. Chester decided to see just how bad it was outside.

Bundled up in his old, wool jacket, it took all his might to open the back door. In rushed the snow-tons and tons of snow. He made a scramble for the scarf he didn’t think he’d need-told Barley to stay put and then was swallowed up in winter’s fury.

Getting his bearings, snow drenched him from head to foot. His beard was whiter than ever; his eyebrows immersed in ice crystals. Hugging the side of the house, he made his way to the shed. Using his boots, he pushed aside just enough snow to get inside and find a shovel although it was a plow he really needed. Snow storms were common but this one was coming straight out of the northeast. Chester was aware it’d be one for the record books. His only intention was to clear around the back door so it’d be a little less snow he’d have to shovel in the morning. That changed when he heard what he was certain were screeching brakes and then a thump. Even with nature’s rage all around him, Chester sensed someone needed him.


Having lived about the surrounding acres all his life, Chester understood that particular someone had to be near the barn. That’s where the road took a sharp curve and on a night like tonight, that could prove fatal to someone foolish enough to be on the road in the first place.

Without hesitation, Chester stepped into the white abyss. It took his breath away. Fighting to stay standing, he tucked his scarf into his jacket as best he could. Using the shovel as a staff and relying on memory to guide him, Chester inched his way through the drifts-some places up to his waist. A few times he rolled over. A few times he became buried in the stuff but he kept pushing while searching for the light kept on up in a window in the barn. Anna had insisted. She felt it gave the place a welcoming feeling to those passing by. Tonight it proved vital. Thankful the power hadn’t gone out, Chester pinpointed the light. Using it as a reference, he trudged over where flat rocks spread underneath; then up the small incline to the back of the barn. He thought for sure it’d taken hours. Being in snowstorms does that when actually he made it out there in record time. Now he had to get around to the front.

The wind changed making visibility a bit better. Rounding the far corner of the weathered structure, Chester needed to find the gate. It’d been awhile since he’d been out there. After Anna passed away he’d hired someone to care for the chickens and the few horses he hadn’t sold. He may have lost all interest but it didn’t mean he forget where things were. Minutes later he was trying to push open the gate but with so much snow piled high, he stepped right over it. That’s when he saw the headlights. That’s when he heard a voice calling for help. It was a man.

Instinct told Chester to go inside the barn for a flashlight. He always kept some just inside the door for emergencies and this insane evening certainly qualified.

“They better work, “Chester said out loud as he put the shovel to task in front of the sliding wood door.

The wind had created a sort of whirlwind where he stood. It’d churned the snow so much that there was a clearing right where Chester needed one. Taking the handle end of the shovel, he began slamming on the long board acting as a lock. It only needed to be lifted up and away from the latch. The person in the car must have heard Chester. He was yelling as up popped the board. With one mighty heave the door slid back and Chester was inside. Fumbling for a second, Chester found the light switch. The barn lit up like a lighthouse in a storm.
There was no time to waste. Being in that place with familiar smells of hay and old wood brought back memories of when the farm was a working farm. It’d been a good life for Chester and Anna. The fields provided for them. It was hard work from sunup to sundown but they wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“The Lord has blessed us,” Anna said more often than not.

Her words kept Chester going as he found a flashlight. It worked. Keeping the door wide open for even more light, Chester headed out towards the road. In normal circumstances, it wasn’t very far. This wasn’t the first time a car had misjudged the curve. In this weather, there was no curve.

“Over here.”

Chester didn’t say a word. Shining the light ahead of him he could tell the vehicle was immersed in snow which was probably why the man was alive. It cushioned the impact. It was an old pick-up Chester could tell. The outline of something in the backend caught his eye. It was a Christmas tree.

“It’s my leg. It’s stuck.”

Again the wind turned, making visibility harder and trying to walk in it near impossible. But Chester didn’t stop. He couldn’t. He was needed and that gave him purpose. He tried shouting back but the wind took his breath away so he let the flashlight be his voice. The closer he got the more the man shouted.

“Over here. I’m over here!”

With the truck’s headlights swallowed up in a whiteout, it was hard but Chester could see the truck partially in the road. This pushed Chester even faster; realizing if someone came around that curve, the man would be in harm’s way. This didn’t matter to Old Man Winter who seemed to turn up his fury just as Chester reached the truck. Taking a second to access the situation, he aimed the flashlight directly at the driver’s seat. He first noticed there was no airbag deployed. There was no airbag at all. The truck was too old. Getting a little closer, Chester could see army fatigues; then a young man in obvious pain.

“You okay, son?”

The wind carried Chester’s words as it did the sound of an approaching car.

Chester didn’t wait for an answer. There was no time. He knew the roads; knew blizzards. He and Anna had been through the worst of them. He’d even proposed in a blizzard; got right down on his knee while cutting ice on the nearby river in 5 degree weather and asked her to be his wife. Whenever they told this story, no one could believe Anna was out in that kind of temperature. But after being around the couple, it was evident how much they loved each other; evident that the cold couldn’t have kept Anna away.

The thought of his wife gave Chester the strength to reach down into that truck and with fingers numb from the storm, release the man’s trapped leg and in one huge lunge pull him out and hold on to him as he headed back towards the barn. Even the sound of whatever it was trying to stay on the road hitting the fender of the protruding truck and continuing on didn’t stop Chester. He never slowed down, even when the wind tried desperately to knock him down. The old man kept going.

As the snow and ice kept coming in sheets, Chester held his own against a force that brought down trees and held people hostage in their homes. Protecting the young man the best he could; conscious of his leg, Chester forged ahead right through the doorway and didn’t stop until lying him down on a bed of hay. Both of them nearly frozen, the barn was like a sauna to them. With his face a beat red; his hands stinging, Chester pulled the door shut. He then unbuttoned his coat and laid it over the young man.

“Hope I didn’t do you any harm son. There was no time to dally.”

It took a few minutes for a reply.

“You saved my life sir. I heard someone hit my truck.”

“I’ll check your leg. Hurtin’ anywhere else? I see a cut above your eye but nothing serious. Don’t worry about a truck. What matters is that you’re okay. That snow bank saved you.”

Chester was kneeling now. “Don’t want to hurt you. If I do, let me know.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“Heck no. Have brought a few calves into the world though.”

“So this is your barn?”

“Has been for generations.”

“Got some cows? Horses?”

Chester didn’t answer. It was getting personnel.

“The leg’s not broken; just badly bruised. Should probably get an x-ray. These old eyes of mine play tricks on me.”

Sitting next to the young man with his back to the door that led to stanchions and pens and stalls, Chester looked around. It felt good to be in the barn. Shutting his eyes, he could hear Anna call him for dinner; hear them talking as chores were done for another day.

“You sleeping, sir?”

“No. No. Just thinking what a lucky young man you are. You from around here?”

“Yup. Got back yesterday. Been overseas.”

“Home for Christmas are you?”

“Home for Christmas.”

The wind interrupted. The power went out but only for a second. The conversation kept going.

“So I saw a tree in the back of the truck.”

“It was to be a surprise for my little girl.”

“Christmas is about surprises.”

“It’s my friend’s truck. I borrowed it to get back. Haven’t seen my family yet.”

“Do they know you’re coming?”

“No. That’s another surprise.”

“How long you back for?”

“Longer than most. My daughter’s having surgery.”

“That’s a heck of a Christmas present.”

“That’s what I told my wife. Our Nora’s only four.”

“Life isn’t fair sometimes.” Chester thought of Anna, dancing around the kitchen with her hair flowing; the smell of jasmine all around her. She loved to dance. She’d wrap her arms around Chester and pull him up from the table to her dance floor. They usually ended up in the bedroom.

“Mind my asking what the surgery’s for?”

“It’s her eyes. Doctor says it’s inherited.”

“Mustn’t be your side or the Army wouldn’t have taken you.”

“Our daughter’s adopted.”

“Well that’s just fine. Just fine. I’ve know a lot of adopted kids over the years.”

“Did you adopt them?”

“No. Only at Christmas you could say. We never had children. We couldn’t after-after Anna lost the baby.”

“Anna’s your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She died?”

“A little over eight months ago. Every Christmas we filled the place with adopted kids.”

“That’s when adopted kids really miss family.”

“You adopted, son?”

“How did you know?”

“I can hear it in your voice.”

“It took me awhile to accept I didn’t have parents.”

“That’s what I’d hear time and time again. They just wanted a family. Some never accepted it.”

“Makes a difference to know you have a place to call home. I almost gave up hoping.”

“Can’t ever give up.”

“That’s what my wife tells me. Our daughter’s going blind.”

“What do the doctors say?”

“Surgery’s a long shot.”

“Life’s a long shot son. That’s where faith comes in.” Chester thought about what he’d told the young man-about faith.

“I’ve been afraid she’d lose her sight before I got home; afraid she’d never see me again. I can’t believe the truck went off the road.”

Chester was up. He slid the door back open and found the moon acting like a spotlight. “Stopped snowing. Sure got a ton of the stuff. You’re truck’s in there pretty good.”

Before Chester could stop him, the young man was by his side.

“Shouldn’t be on that leg of yours.”

“I have to get home.”

The moon was out as were stars, so many stars. But it was one star that made the difference.

“What’s your name son?”

“Paul.”

“I’m Chester, Paul. Up there; see that star, Paul? That’s the Christmas star. I’ve heard if you close your eyes and pray this time of the year, your prayer will be answered. It might not be answered the way we think it should be answered but it will be answered.”

The wind made some more little whirlwinds. Like ballerinas they danced under the moonlight as Paul stood looking at Chester.

“Didn’t mean to upset you boy?” Chester felt uncomfortable. Paul kept staring.

“It is you.”

“What?”

“It is you. The years haven’t changed you. I knew your voice was one I’d heard before.”

Chester didn’t know what to say.

“We stood right here years ago. I was one of those adopted kids. It was after a sleigh ride and I stayed back to help you with the horses. Your wife took the rest of the kids to the house.”

“There’ve been so many kids. I….”

“It’s so clear to me standing here. The stars were out just as they are now. I was crying. I told you all I wanted for Christmas was a mom and a dad and you told me about the Christmas star. That I should close my eyes and pray and I did and a few months later I was adopted. I found a family because of you.”

“And Anna had to yell out the back door for us because the children were waiting for Santa.”

“Yes. You sent me in the house first; told me I was Santa’s helper that night because I was a very special boy. I never wondered where you went or where Santa came from!”

“You really are that little kid; the one with freckles and sad eyes? We wondered whatever happened to you. Anna would ask but no one gave us any information.”

“It’s me, minus the freckles.”

“Let me get a good look at you. I’ve been so busy ignoring people that I don’t see them.”

“Be thankful for your sight Chester. You told me that night to pray. You told me I would find a family and I did.
Because of you I found my family. Now it’s your turn Chester.”

“My turn?”

“Your eyes are sad. I remember your wife. She was very kind to me. She told me I would find my place.”

Digging deep down inside a pocket, Paul pulled something out. “It’s your turn Chester. Your wife gave me this rosary. I’ve kept it near. I needed to get home to my family. Now it’s your turn. Your Anna is right by your side.”

Chester hadn’t cried. Not once since she’d whispered his name for the last time had he shed a tear over losing Anna. There was no holding back now. Both men shed tears. Both had their reasons standing in the doorway of that old barn.


When Chester spoke, it was from his heart. “Believe in miracles son?”

“It is Christmas Chester.”

“It is indeed!”

“Where are you going,” Paul asked as Chester rushed back into the barn.

“I’m taking you home.”

“But the road’s not plowed.”

“It’s Christmas, remember?”

Pausing for but a moment, Chester lifted the latch of the door leading into the main barn. He’d shut it the morning Anna passed away and hadn’t returned. The hired hand would keep him updated on what livestock there was left. Flipping on the light, he took stock of the place where he’d spent his days. Anna was everywhere. What surprised Chester was the sadness had gone away. He felt content in her memory. She really hadn’t gone anywhere. She was in every nook and cranny of that barn. Grabbing a burlap bag, he went into a smaller room and came back out as Santa Claus.

Pulling a tarp off a huge object, Chester remarked, “Every Santa needs a sleigh. No time to polish her tonight.”
“Come on Molly,” the old man whispered, hugging the horse that had been Anna’s from the minute he was born in a backfield one rainy and windy morning. “It’s time for another Christmas miracle.”

The dapple gray horse knew what was about to happen as Chester hitched him up to the sleigh.

“The bells? Where did I put those bells?”

Taking a second to look around Chester felt the holiday spirit as never before. The gift of family is priceless. He and Anna had provided that feeling for years and tonight they’d do it again.

“Oh. I remember. They’re in the shed.”

Back in an instant, Chester unleashed those bells. Their music rang through the stalls and pens and stanchions; up and around the hay mows and out the back door now opened wide into the night. Climbing on board the sleigh and taking the reins, Chester urged Molly to take the lead. They were around the front of the barn in seconds.

“It’s the same sleigh,” Paul exclaimed, just as excited as the little boy with freckles and sad eyes. “Those are the bells I remember; the bells I think of every year at this time.”

“That they are Paul. Surprisingly, this is the same suit. Haven’t had it on in years. Still fits!”

“You certainly brought Christmas to many in that suit.”

“It’s time to do that again.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m bringing a little girl her daddy home for Christmas if you feel strong enough.”

“Nothing could stop me Santa.”

Without another word, Paul, with Chester’s help, made it up right next to Santa himself. Stopping to get the tree from the back of the truck, the two headed straight through the opened field.

“We’ll follow the Christmas star,” bellowed Santa. “The Christmas star always brings you home.”

And so they did. With those bells chiming, Santa and the little boy now grown dashed their way through the snow back to a family waiting. Miracles do happen-especially when sad eyes turn into open hearts and grief turns into loving memories and a jolly, old man with a white beard wears his red, velvet suit once again.

Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story, Barbara.  It totally embodies the true spirit of Christmas.


The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward
published October 15, 2010

Abbey senses something special about the little man tending to the reindeer who, along with a century-old farmhouse, a barn full of animals, and fields abounding in woods and pasture, was a gift to Abbey from a stranger. Abbey and her husband, Steve, move in just before the holidays. They have been together since the '60s, eloping when Steve returned from Vietnam. Now with Abbey's cancer in remission, they're looking forward to their boys coming home for Christmas.

Turns out this Christmas proves to be more magical than anticipated as Abbey realizes an understanding never thought possible through the rekindling of a belief rooted in childhood. Of course it's who delivers this gift on Christmas Eve that gives Abbey and Steve the strength to face their greatest challenge.

Visit Barbara:  Book Website | Snarly Sally Website | Facebook | Goodreads

Always in spirit....


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